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E234 | Changing Lives Through Excellent Teaching with Hazel Pulley & Jonathan Smart

What if you had to radically transform your business, change the culture, improve the percentage of A-players, drive staff engagement, and roll out a purpose and core values, all without raising salaries or changing the team? Well, that’s what our guests this week have done in their organisation. And all whilst improving the education delivery and striving to change the lives of the children in their schools.

This week on The Melting Pot, we learned from Hazel Pulley and Jonathan Smart, CEO and Deputy CEO at Excelsior MAT, a multi-academy trust, currently with six primary schools in innercity Birmingham in their portfolio. ExcelsiorMAT is one of the teams that we’ve worked with at Monkhouse & Company, and we’re deeply proud of their amazing transformation over the past few years. Hence why we wanted them to join us on the show to share with us the keys to their incredible success. 

In this episode, we hear from Hazel and Jonathan about their journey applying the Scaling Up framework and how it radically transformed their organisation. They also dived into how they managed to change the business without raising salaries or changing the team. This episode is a true testament to great leadership, making the right decisions and building an amazing culture. 

Download and listen to this fascinating episode to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • What is a Multi Academy Trust
  • Can Scaling Up be applied in Education?
  • Changing lives through teaching
  • Cultivating existing talent
  • The importance of happiness at work

Follow Hazel and Jonathan:

ExcelsiorMAT website

Jonathan Smart LinkedIn

Hazel Pulley LinkedIn

ExcelsiorMAT Twitter

ExcelsiorMaT LinkedIn

Changing Lives Through Excellent Teaching with Hazel Pulley & Jonathan Smart

Hazel Pulley is a dynamic and visionary leader in education with a track record of school improvement focused on having the right people in the right seats and ensuring the right people move into bigger seats as they grow. 

She became the Headteacher of Parkfield Community School in 2008, only to relinquish the role as the school grew from a SAT to a MAT, Excelsior, in 2017. Parkfield was the fifth headship in her career of working within 4 local authorities, all based in areas of serious deprivation and extreme challenge. 

Presently Hazel has been working with Danish HTs and LA leaders to facilitate their thinking around academisation and has recently designed a Framework and Review for Disadvantaged Pupils available to all schools, building on the great work by Marc Rowland.

Jonathan has worked in education for 24 years. He was the Headteacher of his own school for 10 years before becoming Executive Headteacher at Excelsior Multi Academy Trust. More recently Deputy CEO. He is passionate about changing the lives of children through excellent teaching and the role intentionally designed culture and staff happiness play in delivering this. 

What is a Multi Academy Trust?

A Multi Academy Trust is a group of schools that have decided to become an academy. Rather than going through the local authority, a Multi Academy Trust receives its funding directly from London. This also means that they receive the full amount of funding, without having the local authority keep some of it back. 

“You’ve got to provide everything for those schools. But it’s really exciting because there’s a moral purpose. And the moral purpose is that you share between you enabling all the schools to rapidly improve and offer the pupils a fantastic offer in education.” 

Becoming a Trust allows these schools to provide their own HR, finance and operations support. They’re more efficient as they can deal with things faster than it would happen in a local authority. For instance, changing someone’s salary or contract would take months through the local authority because they’re dealing with a huge number of schools. 

“But the exciting bit is how can we create an exciting playbook amongst the schools that we have that show and use proven methods, pedagogy techniques in education that can really get that high level of pupil outcome? And because you’re dealing with fewer schools to begin with, and creating that purpose and clear direction in your playbook, it happens more effectively. And once you’ve got the talent there that we are recruiting hotly, you can really have that at a fast pace.”

Discovering Scaling Up and achieving the 3-HAG

“It’s interesting how we find you. Thank goodness we did”, says Hazel when asked about meeting Dominic and going through the Scaling Up methodology. 

Hazel came across Scaling Up when her daughter handed her the book Scaling Up by Verne Harnish and said “Mum, you need to read this, it’s right up your street”.

“So I picked it up, and I started reading it. It was such a change. It opened my eyes and thought, this is what I need. I’m not a head teacher anymore, I’m running a small business, and I want to do it well. How do I grow?”

Then, she shared it with the Chief Operating Officer, who came to one of our Scaling Up workshops and, on her way back she rang Hazel: “We’re doing this”. 

When ExcelsiorMAT started coaching with Monkhouse & Company, they were working out their 3-Year Strategic Plan. Back then they had four schools in their portfolio, with a plan to be six. Now, a few years later, they achieved their 3-Year Hairy Audacious Goal, welcoming two more schools into the trust.

“But already we’ve had a school this week where the governing body unanimously voted to come and join us. So we are six, moving to seven and it’s gaining pace.”

But, what do these schools hope to achieve when they join the trust? Hazel says better outcomes. Not just in terms of attainment, but a rounded involvement with a trust that holds equality very high in the vision across all the schools. 

“They’re looking for more support for a school than the local authority could give them. So we can give that support in all the areas that they need to rapidly improve the outcomes for children in that school and the life chances of the children in their schools.”

Speed of change and how to measure it

Legally, the process of joining the trust takes a long time, says Jonathan. However, what they have seen is an immediate impact on the quality of opportunity. They need to make sure that those schools are filled with top talent, and an effective teacher in front of every child to make sure that the children’s outcomes are where they need to be. It takes time to get that in place. 

“What I would say the two new schools have seen is a huge difference in the push of high expectations and also a massive change in the opportunity in terms of some of the infrastructure, some of the teaching methods that we use that weren’t there in the start. And I think what that’s helped us to do is bring in two schools in one go, virtually in one go, is really know how that induction process should work for us to take a new school on. I think that’s been a big learning curve and a big process for us.”

Making a difference through teaching

Do you remember that teacher that you loved at school? What impact did they have on you as a child? In ExcelsiorMAT, they believe that outstanding teaching changes lives. They know how powerful an effective teacher is. 

“I think when you look back at your time, if we did that conversation with a hundred people, they’d come out with fairly similar things about why they love that teacher. And I think that helps us to make sure that we’re doing the right things for our children because we know that an effective teacher can really change a life.”

Hazel also mentions that there is some research under the Leverage Leadership Book that looks at charter schools in America – which are not dissimilar to academies in England–, and what it showed is that if you put a child in front of an effective teacher for three years in a row, the disadvantage gap closes.

Getting more from existing talent

When the trust is welcoming a new school, there is usually fear from the staff that the trust is going to remove everyone and start new. This used to happen. Called architectural leadership, they would flatten the school and build it up again. After three years, it was dire the impact on morale, says Hazel. 

That’s why one of the first things ExcelsiorMAT tell the people from that new school is that they have high expectations, that there will be high support from a low threat threshold. What they do is get more from the existing talent in that school. And, at the same time, they’re talent-spotting. 

“So as soon as the school is welcomed in, we offer an opportunity for people who really want to grasp this opportunity we’re giving in learning new ways of teaching and learning, to get involved with research. Then we will look and see what grows from within.”

Hazel also tells the story of the time their first school joined. They were short on Head Teachers, so she joined them as Head Teacher for a short time to help them. For her, it was a great way to work and find the existing talent there. The problem was the paucity that they’d had before had really dumbed down opportunities, and the growth was nil. 

“I was just talking to our facilities lead just before we came on, and I was asking him, why are you so happy at Excelsior? Because I know he is. He said, “I started as a part-time site manager and look at me now, Hazel. I’m the lead for all the facility operations right across the MAT.” And you know what this guy’s just done? He was working with our Operations Officer. It is amazing. They’ve just got us a rebuild for a school in the latest traunch from DfE. How often do you hear a school being rebuilt? But this guy did it. That is just amazing.”

Children’s learning experience at the core 

One of the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that Excelsior identified early on in their journey was persistent absence or zero nonattendance. Pre-Covid, the expectation was to have everyone in school. When Covid hit everything was remote, but due to their circumstances, many of Excelsiors’ children didn’t have access to laptops. So, they dug into their budget and bought one for every child. When people aren’t online, the team visit them to make sure everything is okay. 

“And I just thought that it was just a fabulous way in which the key metric lived through changing circumstances and that sort of North Star can just drive behaviour and tactics.”

Although this was an expensive move, it sent a powerful message. They value children’s learning so much that they’re going to give them the tools they need to do it. For instance, if a child is off ill during the week, the class teacher has the opportunity to ring up the child themselves with the parent. And in many cases the persistent absence level is really reducing because of this real intrinsic approach, not just to the parent, it has to go to the child, and it needs to be the class teacher. 

In that sense, research shows that, if nothing else changes and the only thing the teacher does differently is stand at the door of the classroom and shake the hand of every child on the way and say, ‘hello, welcome to the class’, attainment goes up. This creates a huge amount of buy-in from those children. And that just helps. It’s so easy when you’ve got a great relationship with the children because they will walk through walls for you, says Jonathan.

“Our core purpose is that we want children to come to school, we want them to learn, but in there we say we want them to come and feel included and valued. Neither will work without the other.”

In fact, adds Jonathan, that’s just one of their two purposes. The second is for the staff, and was taken from Gary Ridge at WD 40. Companies that wake up, go to work, contribute to something bigger than themselves, feel safe and valued when they get there, and then go home fulfilled and happy. These two purposes, says Jonathan, are crucial. 

The tools that transformed ExcelsiorMAT

Hazel doesn’t hesitate to admit that the Attribution Framework is one of the tools she loves the most. They chose their attribute and looked at the other trusts to find out what they were doing, looking for a gap. Where could they move into and shine to encourage schools to join them in their hunger for growth? 

“And it was transformational because it gave us our three differentiators which now lead our swim lanes. And it was employer of choice, reputation and innovation.” 

At the end of the three years, they went back with more people on their team, and they’ve been investing to grow their core team. Then, they did it again with some new people and found some more space. They’ve got Innovation, Reputation as their attributes, and recently added High grade, because they look for A-players, and that is leading their growth.

Another tool that’s been crucial at Excelsior is the NPS (Net Promoter Score). They ask their people, ‘Would you recommend the school?’, and ‘Would you be happy for your child to come to the school in which you work in?’ Jonathan always says that if one of their schools is good enough for his child, then it must be okay. It’s doing a good job. 

“So we asked our staff if they would they recommend the Trust and they would be happy for their children to be in the school? So we got a Net Promoter Score of 87 using that metric, which is fantastic.”

Attracting and retaining A-Players

When ExcelsiorMAT started coaching with Monkhouse & Company, their A-Player rates among teachers were between 10% to 20%. Now, they’re at around 30% to 40%. A lot of that has been achieved through recruitment and retaining their existing great staff. 

But, also by putting in place a much better high-quality Continued Professional Development for them, so that they can change their C players to B’s, and their B- players to A’s. Also, when we look for new staff, Excelsior makes sure that they are employing A-players, but at the same time making sure that those people fit in with their culture. 

“We can teach teachers to teach, but we can’t teach them to fit into the culture or we can teach anyone the job. But we can’t necessarily teach them to fit in with the culture and the vision and buy into what we’re trying to do.”

Jonathan adds that their job is not just to recruit and retain their A-players, but to make sure everyone can become an A-player. 

Measuring Employee Happiness

To measure employee engagement at Excelsior, they use Friday Pulse. The reason that led them to choose this engagement survey is their happiness element. It’s like a ‘happy-ometer’, says Jonathan, rather than just measuring engagement. Engagement is very difficult to measure. But you can measure an emotion because everyone has it and you can tell whether you’re happy or not. But, how can you measure if you’re engaged or not? That’s why they chose Friday Pulse and why they introduced it to the core team during the lockdown. 

“It’s really interesting looking at the data today. The results have come through today for last week, and our four original schools were really knocking it out of the park when we’ve got our benchmarking report. It pits us against everyone who does Friday Pulse in the UK, everyone who does Friday Pulse in education, and everyone who does Friday Pulse in our organisational employee size range. The last one we did before the two new schools, we were above everyone in every measure, so we were really proud of that.”

When their two new schools joined, their Friday Pulse figures changed slightly. For Jonathan, that simply shows that they’ve got work to do in those schools.  At Excelsior, culture and staff happiness are crucial. Happy staff do a better job. If you enjoy your job, you’re going to do a better job. And as Aristotle said, ‘pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work’.

Book recommendations 

Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Trusted Leader by David Horsager

Lincoln on leadership by Donald T. Phillips

Belonging by Owen Eastwood

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